Heracles Epitrapezios

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This piece is a marble fragment making up the lower half of a male figure seated on a circular base. The body is seated on a lion skin covering a rocky surface. There is a club on the ground behind the left foot. The piece is a Roman copy of the famous bronze sculpture by Lysippos for Alexander the Great, called the “Heracles Epitrapezios”, so-called as it was destined to be exhibited on a table (epi: on; trapezios: table). However, the anatomy of the hero here is not very marked. This, however, was usual in ancient prototypes, in which Heracles, already mature, was shown to be very muscular, and with his body in a tense position. This was a challenge to the sculptors to try to capture the human body with precision. The working of the marble is exquisite, demonstrating a refined technique and a clear differentiation of quality in the worked areas: the tight skin of the hero as a beardless young man, the roughness of the lion skin, etc.

Lysippos represented the hero resting after the mythic “Twelve Labours of Heracles” imposed on him by Eurystheus. According to the Delphic Sibyl the hero had to pass these twelve tests to expiate for the murder of his wife, children and nephews, as in an attack of madness imposed on him by Hera, the hero committed this most damnable of crimes. It is probable that Alexander the Great himself commissioned Lysippos to carry out this work, as both Alexander and his father, Philip of Macedon, considered Heracles to be the mythical founder of their family, the Argead dynasty. Heracles was a source of constant inspiration to these generals because of his strength, his divine origin and his multiple victories over his enemies. On many occasions the ancient sources tell us of parallel episodes in the lives of Alexander the Great and Heracles, praising, for example, the strength and ingenuity of the young Macedonian while taming a horse, and also these same qualities shown by the mythical hero while he was killing the Nemean lion. Alexander liked this bronze so much that it accompanied him on all of his expeditions.

The sculpture was already famous in antiquity, as can be seen from the poems of Statius (Silvae 4.6) and of Martial (Epigramas 9.43). They comment on the iconography of Heracles Epitrapezios and the fact that it belonged to Alexander the Great, was later acquired by Hannibal, Sulla, and finally, by Novius Videx, a powerful Roman citizen in the early Roman Empire. These texts describe the work as being a small piece, adequate for private use, as colossal works seemed to be destined to magnify the legends of victorious generals. At the same time, Statius and Martial allude to the Roman custom of using large classical Greek works, so that the owner could demonstrate his power, prestige, and his membership of the cultural elite.

The sculptor Lysippos, a native of Sicyon (390-318 BC) was one of the principal sculptors of Greece in the 4th century BC along with Scopas and Praxiteles, reinterpreting and renovating models by Polykleitos and Myron. He was the official sculptor for the portraits of Alexander the Great. His work established his conception of the human figure as leaner and less muscular those seen in earlier Greek works. His production is also legendary: sources talk of more than 1,500 works. However, only Roman copies of these pieces have survived to the present day.

Given the fame that the Heracles Epitrapezios had acquired in antiquity, diverse copies are conserved in some of the best-known museums. The poems of Statius and Martial talk of the hero seated on a lion skin, holding a cup of wine in one hand and a club in the other, details that do not appear in this present work in question (the club is on the ground). But these details are present in the copies in the Hermitage and in Pompeii. The fragmentary nature of the pieces in the Louvre and in the Cleveland Museum of Art does not allow us to be sure if the hero is displaying these attributes. At the same time, the copy which has appeared from the palace of Sennacherib in present-day Iraq is considered to be important as an example of the success which this model had in the entire Hellenistic world. (This piece is now in the British Museum).

A variation on this iconography can be seen in the works in which a winged Eros takes the place of Heracles with a gesture of irritation, generally alluding to the invincible power of love. The small Eros accompanying the attributes of Heracles expresses the indomitable power of the frenzy of love, its capricious nature and the sexual impulse (Torlonia Collection and the Sotheby’s catalogue).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

- FLOREN, J. «Zu Lysipps Statuen des sitzenden Herakles», Boreas, 4. 1981. p. 47-60.
- MCNELIS, C. «Ut Sculptura Poesis: Statius, Martial, and Hercules Epitrapezios of Novius Videx», The American Journal of Philology, 129. 2008. 2, p. 255-276.
- MESSINA, V. Sulla via di Alessandro da Seleucia al Gandhara. Silvana Editoriale for the Palazzo Madama. Torino. 2007. p. 173-4.
- MURRAY, A. «Hercules Epitrapezios», JHS, 3. 1882. p. 24-43.
- PALAGIA, O. «Herakles Epitrapezios by Lysippos», LIMC, 4. 1988. p. 774-6.
- de VISSCHER, F. “Heáclès Epitrapezios», AC, 30. 1961. p. 67-129.
- Lexicon iconographicum mythologiae classicae IV 775 Cat. no. 965* s. v. Herakles. 1988.
- Catálogo de Sotheby’s. Ancient Marbles. 13.06.2016, lote 41.

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